Rhetoric, Architecture, and School Design

Thursday, June 25| 10:30-11:15am

Teachers and administrators of classical schools unfailingly build their curriculum on the classical arts of language and thought. We are perhaps less likely to look to those arts for principles in designing our schools. For the great classical orators such as Cicero, good rhetoric was a matter of fitting one’s discourse appropriately to the purpose, the audience, the occasion, and the setting. The guiding concept was decorum. Interestingly, in the recovery of classical-Christian culture that we call the Renaissance, the work of the visual arts—of decorating rooms and buildings—was understood to parallel that of rhetoric. 

In an age when art was almost always commissioned for specific places, to be used by specific audiences to enhance particular activities and occasions, decorating and décor was all about decorum. Likewise for the architect: the art of building was rhetorical, to be guided by the principle of designing every aspect of a building for maximal appropriateness for the purposes and actions housed in that place. The job was to temper (i) every room to its importance in the building as a whole; (ii) every decorative element in a room to the room’s role in the building; and (iii) the whole building to its place and purpose in the surrounding townscape and landscape. 

This workshop is not about advocating a common “classical style” of architectural design. Rather, we will outline a set of classical principles that can be applied to whatever local circumstances mark the setting of your school.

Dr. John Skillen

John Skillen (Ph.D., English, Duke University) served as the medieval and Renaissance literature specialist at Gordon College for fifteen years. Dr. Skillen then served as the founding director of the College’s arts-and-history semester program in Orvieto, Italy, now in its twenty-first year. Along the way, Skillen established the Studio for Art, Faith & History to develop projects offering creative contemporary responses to pre-modern traditions in the arts and education. Several of the Studio’s summer seminars support the classical-Christian schooling movement, in collaboration with the Classical Academic Press.Dr. Skillen's book Putting Art (back) in its Place (Hendrickson, 2016) gives an account of the community-and-site-specific places in which art functioned in medieval-Renaissance Italy, and suggests the value of putting the work of art back in the places where communities of faith perform their work. Making School Beautiful (forthcoming in Summer 2020 from Classical Academic Press) applies pre-modern traditions in architectural and interior design to the growing number of schools now revitalizing the heritage of Christian-classical education. Skillen’s essays on the arts and classical-Christian tradition have appeared in IMAGE journal, the journal of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), and the FORMA journal of the CiRCE Institute. He is a contributor to the Visual Commentary on Scripture and the Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception. As senior advisor for classical learning initiatives at Gordon College, Dr. Skillen has helped design a track for classical school teachers and administrators in the College’s Master’s program in Leadership.